March 26, 2018 was a beautiful spring morning to go looking for a holy well in Cornwall where a fairy was rumored to live. I was in the UK on business, travelling around looking for sites that I have either included or may include in The McGunnegal Chronicles fantasy book series that I’m writing.
I had spent the night at the Little Mainstone Guesthouse in Looe, an amazing B&B in an equally amazing town along the coast. The tide was out when I arrived, leaving the boats high and dry.
With the help of the Little Mainstone’s owners and a few Google inquiries, I set out to drive up to Hobb’s Park, where Saint Nun’s Well was said to reside.
It’s said that one should never go to a holy well without a gift (some say for the elf, fairy or piskie that guards the well, and some say as a way of honoring the saint to whom the well is dedicated). I wondered what gifts I would find inside the well when I arrived, and what I might leave behind. More on that later.
Saint Nun (also Non, Nonna, Ninnie, or variations of that) was Saint David of Wales’ mother (St. David, who died in c. 589, is the patron saint of Wales). The location of Saint Nun’s well is in Pelynt, which is thought to be from the Cornish Plu-Nent, meaning “Parish of St. Nonna”. It would only be appropriate that a holy well dedicated to her would be here. She is, in fact, the patron saint of Pelynt. You can read more about her on Wikipedia and other places.
The drive up to Hobb’s Park was beautiful and mysterious, up a one-lane road that was often like a tunnel, with overhanging trees covered in moss and vines. It felt old.
When I arrived at the entrance to the park, there was a place to pull off, so I did, and I decided to walk to the well. A sign pointed the way.
One is immediately aware of the richness of this place. Sheep graze on beautiful green hills that run steeply down to a river, songbirds sing, pheasants squawk, and wildlife abounds. On this morning, a cool mist rose from the deep valley, rolling up the hills and melting away in the sun.
It only took a minute or two before I spotted a sign on the right side of the path that told me that I’d found what I was looking for, and a path of stone steps led past an old oak tree that grew just above the well.
I must say that I was rather excited to see this place. It is, after all, where the fourth book of The McGunnegal Chronicles basically ends.
It’s thought that this well dates from medieval times and was rebuilt in the 19th century. The stone basin inside is thought to date from Norman times. So, I was approaching a site that has been in use for well over a thousand years.
A book from 1894 entitled, Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall (now in the public domain), by M. and L. Quiller-Couch, relates some history of the well, gives an interesting legend regarding it, and shows a picture as it supposedly looked in that time (see the attached picture).
Quiller-Couch says that he supervised the rebuilding of the well at that time because it was in a poor state of repair. The tree that grew above the well had to be cut down, he says, because its roots were destroying the stonework.
What is quite curious to me, however, is that there is a tree above the well today (some 124 years later), and it looks almost exactly like the tree depicted in the 1894 picture. If Quiller-Couch was correct, and the tree was removed, someone wanted that tree to grow back just as it had been before. Either that or there was a second tree that was removed.
As I walked down the well-trodden path and around the corner, I was greeted by the bleating of sheep and a deep valley. It was stunningly beautiful, and the brilliant blue sky accentuated the surrounding green and brown hills.
Looking left and right, the beauty rolls on as far as one can see. It is truly a piece of divine artwork – the kind of place a tired body could come and sit and let all the stress of the day simply roll away.
As I rounded the corner, St. Nun’s Well greeted me. There it was, just as green, beautiful, and old as all the pictures I’d seen, and as mysterious as cazzyjane’s painting makes it (her painting is on the cover of book 4).
The entrance is, perhaps, four feet high and two feet wide, and the plant life all around and on the well’s face is vibrant and growing, even in the cool weather.
To me, it felt as though the well is giving life a boost here. Something about this place seems to just gather nature around itself, drawing it close, and giving it a potency. I’m a member of several Facebook groups that focus on holy wells, and one word that is used time and time again to describe the sense one gets in these places is atmosphere. Indeed, this place has a wonderful atmosphere about it. Words really fall short, but the best I can say is that there is a sense of wonder, peace, wildness, and health surrounding the well. You’ll just have to go there yourself and sit for a while and listen, look, and experience it. Some things in life must be tasted rather than simply thought or read about. Holy places are like that.
So, I decided to go in. One might expect the dark interior of a well like this to be rather dingy, devoid of life, or muddy. But what I discovered was just the opposite. There is an absolute abundance, or shall I say, an explosion of life in this place. As I write this, we are just a week out from the close of winter, and the interior of St. Nun’s well is overflowing with green plant life. Pure water runs into a round basin. I couldn’t resist – I dipped my finger in the cool water and made the sign of the Cross on my forehead. Orthodox Christians like to do that with holy water. It’s not a superstition or magic – it’s a blessing. God uses things in the material world as instruments of His grace.
Now, when I said there was an explosion of life here, I wasn’t just talking about the plants (which do cover much of the interior).
Hidden away in the cracks and crevices of this ancient place are an abundance of creatures who call it their home. As I mentioned earlier, they seem to be drawn here.
As I explored, I found several little insects – perhaps tiny moths, or mosquitos (although they didn’t bite, or even buzz around me at all). That’s a curious thing, since it’s said that visitors who fail to leave a gift (such as a bent pin) will be followed home by clouds of piskies disguised as moths.
There was also a little spider whose web hung delicately among the greenery, and a larger, black spider about the size of a quarter that sat quietly among the rocks in the ceiling. I hope my presence didn’t disturb them too much, but they didn’t jump or run away, but seemed to tolerate me.
Then I found the snails. Not just one or two, but what seemed to be a whole family of them. They too were quietly resting in the cracks and crevices of the well, content to just be there.
I’m not sure what species these were, but Wikipedia lists quite a few non-marine molluscs that have been found in Great Britain, 150 of which live on land.
I counted close to a dozen of these snails just in one area, and there appeared to be more of them that were half buried in the soil that has accumulated in some of the crevices. Perhaps these snails had dug in for the winter, or perhaps I had discovered a snail grave yard. I have no idea.
After finding the snails, I found yet another creature that called St. Nun’s Well its home. It was hanging quietly from the roof, and was quite unconcerned about my presence. In fact, I would have completely missed it had I not looked directly up at the peak of the ceiling.
Its wings were wrapped completely around its two-inch body. Based on a quick Google search, it appears that some bat species do this when hibernating. Perhaps this little fellow hadn’t woken up from his long winter’s nap just yet.
There is a “Bats in Cornwall” Facebook page. Perhaps they could identify him (or her).
So, St. Nun’s well is burgeoning with life – a variety of plans, insects, arachnids, snails, and even a bat. They’ve all gathered together here, drawn to the well’s atmosphere, and are thriving. Perhaps some, like the snails, spend their whole life here.
However, that’s not the only thing that makes this well special and a bit mysterious. People are drawn here too. Many people. One only need look at the many gifts and offerings that have been left to see how sought-after this well truly is. Some leave these for the elf or piskie that is said to guard this place. Some leave them in honor of Saint Nun. There are pins, coins, little pots, a cross, a necklace, a votive candle, bits of this or that, and even a bit of cake (which, by the way, looked suspiciously nibbled on).
St. Nun’s well is full of surprises, but the one thing that drew my eye the most, and seemed the most mysterious, was a little (about 3 inch) statue of a fairy that absolutely seems to be growing green hair and wearing tiny green bracelets. Here she is:
How strange and curiously wonderful this is! It’s just something that ought to be smiled at with a sense of wonder and thanks. I think that we are often too rationalistic, too quick to look for logical and “natural” explanations for things, and because of this we lose our childlike sense of wonder and just plain fun. Maybe God was having a little fun here too.
* * *
If there is a piskie living in and guarding St. Nun’s well, he certainly has lots of company with which to while away the slow Cornwall days.
And that brings me to the last point. What was I to leave in this magical place before I left? I found a bunch of pale yellow primroses growing outside, so I picked one and placed it by the pool in the well.
Then I said a prayer, asking God to bless the waters, the stones, and all the life within it. That was my parting gift.
No moths, spiders, bats or snails followed me as I climbed the steps one last time and walked back up the path.
I hope to return some day to St. Nun’s Well and visit all the little creatures within it. But I especially want to see the little fairy statue again, and see how long her hair has grown.
Through the prayers of St. Nun, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.